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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

On the Verge of Revolution
distributed 7/2/04 - ©2004

I don't think John Ashcroft reads these newsletters, but what I'm writing about today still makes me nervous. This year, my musings for the 4th of July have me thinking about revolution. That is a topic that should make all of us nervous.

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My recent historical reading includes an article from the July, 2004 Smithsonian Magazine. It describes the heated political debate in the Continental Congress through the 15 months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. I've also re-read the text of the Declaration itself.

I am reminded that the document we celebrate this weekend was not a polite letter to the editor. It was not a statement of opinion, presented for the sake of discussion. It was a dramatic and final severing of the political ties between the Mother Country and the colonies.

The Continental Congress had been debating independence for many months. Battles in Massachusetts -- at Bunker Hill, and at Lexington and Concord -- in April, 1775 had raised the urgency of the question. But the Congress was deeply divided.

Many of the delegates wanted to find some way to defuse the conflict. They hoped for some reconciliation with the Crown, some agreement that would assure substantial freedom for the colonies short of independence. But King George snubbed their repeated attempts at diplomacy and negotiation. It was only when those peaceful avenues were finally closed that the Congress was able to come to its unanimous declaration.

What they declared is an interesting mix. It includes assertions of political philosophy ("all men are created equal" -- "unalienable rights" -- "to secure these rights, governments are instituted"), and a lengthy list of specific complaints where those rights had been violated. The vision, the violations, and the attempts at redress are all documented as necessary preface for their declaration of independence from the British Crown.

When the signers pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, they did so with the expectation that many of them would not emerge from the pending war with those blessings intact. Launching a revolution is not a simple or a trivial process.

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Last week's Notes (Concerns About Kerry) prompted quite a few people to write back and say that, while they share many of my concerns about Mr. Kerry's scientific perspectives, it is still important to vote this fall. (Most of them were quite clear about who they were going to vote for, too.) They cited desperate political times, and the urgent need for change -- change to be accomplished at the ballot box.

Yesterday, Sojourners launched a "get out the vote campaign." Their efforts mirror the voter registration efforts of many denominations, and many other organizations.

Apparently, there is still trust in democracy. But I am not sure that the trust is deep.

I hear, from many different sides and sources, of profound concerns about the failures of our political system. Genuine democracy is threatened by the biases of campaign contributions and the influence of corporate lobbyists. Multinational corporations exercise wealth and autonomous power that circumvent government control. International trade agreements create courts that can overrule national policies and legislation.

I have not seen them gathered into a unified "bill of particulars" like that in the Declaration of Independence, but many commentators, many citizens, many interest groups have listed deep-seated frustration, anger and distrust about the state of our democracy.

228 years ago, the members of the Continental Congress named their grievances and saw no alternative but revolution. If our most passionate, reasoned response to the political crises of today is a voter registration drive, then maybe the problems that we face are not all that severe. But I find it hard to claim that simple optimism.

Just a few months before the Declaration was signed, a large proportion of the delegates placed their hope in the political system. They called for petitions and diplomacy. But when it became clear that the existing system could not, or would not, produce change, those same delegates joined in the unanimous vote for revolution.

There is a very fine line between working in the system, and stepping outside of it.

I am afraid. I am afraid that the social contract holding the United States together is becoming dangerously weak. I am afraid that a substantial part of our community is losing its faith in the legitimacy of the entire political system. I am afraid that we may be on the brink of a revolution whose shape and direction I cannot imagine.

The vigorous electoral efforts of this year don't have the feel of joyous and affirmative democracy. They have an edge of panic and desperation that echoes the last-ditch efforts, in 1775, to make the colonial system work. If anger, distrust and alienation continue to grow, we will be in a very dangerous place in just a few years.

I invite you to spend some serious time this Sunday, July 4, reflecting on the state of our government. What are the truths that you would name as "self-evident" and morally central? How are the governmental systems of the country, and the planet, serving those principles, and where are they failing?

Those questions are vitally important. Please join with me in this conversation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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